Monday, September 15, 2008

The Pantheon: Herzog Zwei

Chances are you've never heard of this game. The first reason you haven't is that Sega only made like 50 copies of the thing and didn't promote it at all, they just released it into the wild and said "Live, damn you, live!" This, of course, is something the Geneva convention should classify as a crime against humanity.

The second reason is that this game wasn't just revolutionary, it was so far ahead of its time that nobody knew what to make of it, and so most ended up largely ignoring it. Arguably the first true real-time-strategy game ever released (it predated Dune II by a full three years), it was the progenitor of a genre that wouldn't really become marketable until 1994, with the releases of Warcraft: Orcs and Humans and Command & Conquer. Problem was, it wasn't 1994 yet. It was 1989. Also, those games became popular on PCs, using mouse and keyboard interfaces. Herzog Zwei sprang to life on a console: the Sega Genesis, home of Blast Processing and an erstwhile blue-furred hedgehog named Sonic.

"I've played RTS games on consoles," you may be saying, "and they are all steaming piles of poo." Fair enough. RTS games on consoles are, as a rule, terrible. But Herzog did things differently, in a way that worked for the platform, and in a way that inexplicably has never been tried since. In many ways--though it was the progenitor of an entire genre--Herzog Zwei stands alone as a unique and now-extinct creature. Nothing before or since has replicated what it offered.

Herzog Zwei put you in control of a robotech-like robot that could transform from a cannon-toting humanoid mech into a very cool-looking jet. This robot was the game's answer to the disembodied mouse pointer that controlled everything in just about every RTS that came after, and it was awesome. What kid in the 80s didn't harbor secret dreams of piloting Starscream? Don't say "I didn't." We all know you're a dirty liar.

Your giant jet/robot could pick up and deploy friendly units, fly them to a nearby base to repair and refuel them, and even attack and destroy the other player's robot or enemy units. Upon death, this avatar would respawn a second or two later at the player's home base.

This home base was the place from which each player could order their combat units. There was a pretty robust selection of these: everything from standard tanks to anti-aircraft guns, to extremely powerful but stationary cannons, to speedy and fragile motorcycles. Each unit could be programmed to perform certain tasks--such as patrol an area and attack any enemies in range, or travel to and attack the enemy home base, ignoring everything else along the way--and these simple programs could be changed on the fly. The AI was pretty atrocious in hindsight, but it was impressive enough for the era.

Each player was provided with several mini-bases in from which they could deploy units, and there were neutral bases scattered across the map with varying degrees of strategic value that could be taken over. Only the weakest deployable units, the infantry, could take a base, and four of these foot-soldiers would have to reach a base safely to commandeer it.

The overall object, of course, was to destroy the other player's home base, at which point the game would end. Your robot avatar could not damage a base with his weaponry; only your programmable units could. These units were purchased with money that accrued over time and the more bases you held, the more money came in.

The truly incredible thing about the game, though, was the presentation. Herzog's single player experience was a fairly by-the-numbers RTS game against a computer AI that was incredibly stupid, and made up for that by simply having more units than you. Where the game really shone was in its two-player mode. Split-screen games were rare at the time, and virtually unheard of on a home console. And yet Herzog implemented a split-screen almost perfectly. Each player could work independently of each other, free to move wherever they wanted, and the action was presented beautifully on both sides of the screen. Sure, there was some pretty god-awful slowdown and flicker at times, but only when massive amounts of sprites were on screen at once. This also led to a lot of cheating. Frankly, if you weren't watching what the other guy was doing out of the corner of your eye, you just weren't trying hard enough.

The graphics in the game were bright and colorful, and very nice for the era. The part of the presentation that stuck with me, though, was the music. It was very synthesized, very 80s, and very fitting for the game. Catchy doesn't even begin to describe it. And in a game where matches could take upwards of an hour to play out, you knew the music had to be good if your weren't sick of it halfway through a battle. Here's a nice video I found on Youtube showcasing the music and showing a lot of the gameplay. You owe it to yourself to hear some if this, if you have any appreciation for video game music whatsoever.

It took a certain amount of patience to play the game. It was absolutely unlike the arcade-style action games that were prevalent at the time, and the learning curve was steep. I can understand why the world at large passed over this game. That doesn't make it right, but I can understand. Herzog ended up being what I consider to be one of the greatest undiscovered gems of video game history. If you missed this one, have any fondness for the trappings of RTS games, and have a willing friend to play against, scour Ebay for this, dust off your Genesis, and enjoy. I guarantee you won't regret it.

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